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Published January 29, 2012, 10:55 PM

Growing better calves: Research explores improving species

Noah Litherland feeds his research subjects — young dairy calves — twice a day as they sit in their small hutches outside the dairy farm on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

By: Kali Dingman, The Minnesota Daily

ST. PAUL — Noah Litherland feeds his research subjects — young dairy calves — twice a day as they sit in their small hutches outside the dairy farm on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

A 6:30 a.m. breakfast and dinner later in the day — each meal tailored to an individual calf — is crucial for them to get through the cold winter months.

Litherland, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science, and a team of students are looking at the cows to provide insight into cold stress in calves and their growth responses in the cold winter weather.

The research, funded by the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, began in October.

Fat supplements

The goal is to find the right amount of fat supplements for each of the calves’ diets. Litherland’s study could provide evidence for a way to feed calves in the cold weather that would increase calf health and performance, said Zach Sawall, a research assistant in the department.

Rebekah LaBerge, a senior involved in the study, said the research is important for farmers in the Midwest because investing in maintaining calf health will save farmers money in the future.

Litherland said calves are born with 2 percent body fat and burn the calories they take in quickly. They need these calories for their bodies to grow, but too many will make them sick.

During their first 60 days, the calves stay in small hutches that are heated by their own bodies. Some of the smaller calves wear a jacket to stay warm.

Every morning at 6:30 and again at 4:30 p.m., Litherland and his students feed the calves, and their condition is tracked daily.

“Most people don’t understand that dairy farming is a 365-days-of-the-year job,” Litherland said.

Amount of feed

While on the farm, the researchers measure the amount of feed for each calf because some need more fat supplements than others. They also weigh the calves and study their manure to see how the supplements are affecting them. If the calf is unhealthy, the researchers will change the dosage.

Winter vs. summer

On average, one cow can produce about 10 gallons of milk a day, but Litherland said dairy cows prefer the winter over the summer months. They can produce about twice as much milk in the coldest months of the year as in warmer months.

Even so, the young calves’ frail bodies need extra attention for them to survive the cold. But the calves on the St. Paul campus usually thrive.

“We rarely ever lose a calf,” Litherland said.

The group has been having a difficult time conducting the study this winter because of the strangely warm temperatures but noticed the calves eating much more when the temperatures dropped. The young cows typically eat more on cold days because they need to consume more calories to stay warm.

“Cows aren’t like humans; they don’t eat until they are full,” Litherland said. “They only eat what they need.”

By not using artificial food chemicals in the milk replacers fed to the calves, the researchers hope to appeal to a public that is generally moving toward reducing artificial food in their diet, said Clara Johnson, another student involved in the project.

“Hopefully, this encourages people to support the farming community more,” Johnson said. “It steers the stereotypes away from farmers that they only use artificial products to feed their animals.”

Even though the study is a lot of work, research assistant Dayane Da Silva said it’s all worth it.

“Getting up early in the morning is worth it because I am doing what I love,” Da Silva said. “I feel important doing good things for the world.”